The tiny Alpine state of Liechtenstein has launched legal action to return a swath of Czech territory confiscated from its ancient ruling family at the end of world war two, reigniting a dispute that has rankled for more than 70 years.

Liechtenstein lodged a formal complaint with the European Court of Human Rights this week alleging “disregard” of the sovereignty by the Czech Republic over the return of nearly half a million acres of land, and some of Europe’s grandest castles and palaces. They were confiscated in 1945.

“For us, the unlawful application of the Czechoslovak decrees and the consequences have been an unresolved issue,” Katrin Eggenberger, Liechtenstein foreign minister, told the Financial Times. “Expropriation without compensation is unacceptable.”

The claim relates to the historically sensitive — largely forgotten — ethno-national faultline between Germans and Czechs in the former lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The central issue is the decree by which the postwar Czechoslovak government designated the House of Liechtenstein and 38 other Liechtensteiner families as “German”, and so forfeit of their property and assets because of Nazi war guilt.

At stake is land more than ten times the area of the current principality of Liechtenstein, as well as some of central Europe’s greatest palaces and aristocratic residences. This includes two Unesco world heritage sites: the sprawling neo-gothic Lednice Castle — home to the Liechtenstein family for more than 700 years until it was confiscated — and the baroque Valtice Castle.

Katrin Eggenberger © EPA-EFE
© Alamy Stock Photo

Though the contested assets formerly owned by the ruling house of Liechtenstein are the most valuable in the case, those connected to 38 other individuals include corporate holdings and business interests.

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“[The case] involves fundamental questions of sovereignty,” Ms Eggenberger said. “We’re not doing this just because the princely house is involved. This is for all 39 of our citizens . . . The smaller the country the more important it is to stand up for your rights.”

Martin Smolek, Czech deputy foreign minister, said his country’s preliminary view was that the case should not be considered by the ECHR because the Strasbourg court did not deal with issues that date from before the European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up.

“We also think it’s a strange use of the treaty to use it in a case where there is a very limited group of people — frankly speaking one person — whose rights were allegedly infringed,” he said.

Both he and Ms Eggenberger expressed hope that the case would not damage their relations. The two countries only formally initiated diplomatic ties in 2009 as a result of the long-running dispute. 

The case, filed by Liechtenstein on Wednesday, is essentially an appeal to the ECHR of a decision by the Czech Republic’s constitutional court in February. It ruled against the princely house in a test case disputing ownership of 600 hectares of forest near Prague formerly owned by the house of Liechtenstein. 

Prisoners from Dachau concentration camp cross the frontier of the principality of Liechtenstein and are greeted warmly by frontier guards in May 1945
Prisoners from Dachau concentration camp cross the frontier of the principality of Liechtenstein and are greeted warmly by frontier guards in May 1945. The head of the house of Liechtenstein, Franz Josef II, had fled Vienna as the Nazis took over in 1938 © Keystone/Getty

The Liechtenstein family were one of the great aristocratic dynasties under the Austro-Hungarian empire. With the collapse of the Habsburg dynasty in 1918, the empire fractured imperfectly into a mosaic of new states. Ethnicity became a highly charged and political issue, but rarely one that could be neatly resolved for many of its former cosmopolitan great families.

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In the interwar period, the Liechtensteins spoke German, lived in Vienna, owned most of their land in the new state of Czechoslovakia, and were sovereigns of a 160 sq km sliver of territory — internationally recognised as an independent country — bordering Switzerland, far to the west. 

A 1930 Czechoslovak census deemed the family “German” because that was the language they spoke. Czechoslovakia was home to some 3m “Bohemian” Germans at the time.

In 1938, shortly after the Nazi takeover of Austria, the ruling prince of the house, Franz Joseph II, fled Vienna to take up permanent residence in Liechtenstein itself. The principality remained neutral throughout the war. 

The family remains a significant landholder in many other parts of central Europe. The contested assets confiscated by Prague, however, have remained a bone of contention, not least because they have implied the family’s complicity in Nazi aggression. 

Ms Eggenberger said she was confident the Strasbourg court would rule in Liechtenstein’s favour, but the principality has so far had few successes in challenging the confiscations.

A 2001 case filed against Germany concerning a painting by Dutch master Pieter van Laer that was confiscated by Czech authorities after the second world war went all the way to the International Court of Justice before being dismissed. 

Via Financial Times